9/11 in pictures: A day of eerie quiet, sadness, solidarity

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A woman chalks a message at the site of a vigil in Union Square on Sept. 14, 2001. After Sept. 11, Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman spent two weeks walking New York streets and documenting the grief – and love – that flowed in the wake of the attacks.

Sept. 11, 2001, started as a routine day at the office, but turned into the hardest assignment I’ve ever covered – from Boston, where the two planes that hit the World Trade Center towers originated, to New York, a city in shock.

I drove down to New York that evening on highways empty of traffic except for first responders and utility trucks loaded with flood lights. My press pass got me onto the island of Manhattan, where all roads and bridges leading into the city were closed. It was eerily quiet, no cars and no pedestrians. For the next two weeks I walked the city, photographing people and places forever changed. I’ve never walked so much. I’ve never been so physically and emotionally drained.

The smell of ash and smoke, of destruction, filled my nose and mouth. I couldn’t photograph ground zero itself – media access was severely restricted – so I photographed around the perimeter. I took pictures of exhausted, soot-covered firefighters walking out after their shifts ended; message boards with photos of the missing – Have you seen my mother? brother? son?; chalked words of inspiration that bloomed on the pavement at Union Square. People were kind, courteous, generous.

Why We Wrote This

Looking back on 9/11, it’s easy to remember the horror and the grief. But our photographer’s collection of images from the weeks following those attacks reminds us of the selflessness and love that also poured forth.

I’ve been to war zones far overseas, but never something like this in my own backyard. Still, as in most extreme situations, goodness shone through.

One night, sitting spent in the back of a taxi after a long day of photographing, I saw a small group on a street corner holding a candlelight vigil. I asked the driver to stop and went over to join them. They were Spanish speakers, immigrants, sharing prayers, holding American flags. “Please,” one of them asked, “can you help us sing that song, ‘O say can you see’?” They didn’t know the words. I put down my cameras and together we sang – or hummed – the national anthem. It was beautiful. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
United Airlines crew member Burni Burns looks toward the sky during a memorial service at City Hall Plaza in Boston on Sept. 26. Airline employees – mainly from American and United Airlines – paid tribute to the 22 members of their flight crews who died during the terrorist attack. An estimated 25,000 people attended the memorial.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Outside the Park Avenue Armory in New York, poignant handmade signs seek information about people who were missing on Sept. 13.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Capt. Bill Bokowski (right, with helmet off) and his company of firefighters from the borough of Queens in New York walk away from ground zero on Sept. 12. The company had been hosing down what was left of the 7 World Trade Center building and were taking a break to get food.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Erica Ferencik is overcome with emotion at Logan Airport in Boston on Sept. 11. She and her husband had chosen the second Boston to Los Angeles flight because she was a late sleeper. The earlier departure, American Airlines Flight 11, was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Derwin Hannah sells flags at Washington Square in New York on Sept. 14.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A Muslim man prays with his son by his side during jumah – Friday prayer – at the New York Islamic Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on Sept. 14. It was a national day of prayer for all faiths for the victims of the terrorist attacks.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Fatou Ndiyae holds her baby daughter as she looks at the Wall of Prayers outside Bellevue Hospital in New York on Sept. 14, 2001. Family and friends of those missing after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers placed photos of their loved ones here in the hope they would be found alive. Thousands were still missing.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Randy Gross, a FEMA K9 Search and Rescue worker from Sacramento, California, washes off his dog, Dusty, who was searching for survivors beneath the collapsed twin towers on Sept. 18. The team worked the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
National Guard troops walk by the New York Stock Exchange, where security is high, as it reopened for business on Sept. 17 for the first time after the attacks.

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